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On November 3, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case over Arizona’s popular school choice program. Arizona’s well-known 13 year old Individual Scholarship Tax Credit program offers tax credits to those who donate to fund scholarships for students to attend a private school. Unfortunately, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona filed a lawsuit claiming that the program was unconstitutional since many children have voluntarily chosen to attend religious private schools.
For many years, school choice programs have been under attack from powerful teachers unions, some politicians and others. However, the ACLU who claims to protect individual rights should be a main supporter of school choice. These programs allow students to escape their local failing school to attend a better school that meets their individual needs. As a result, parents and students have a wide array of nonreligious and religious schools to choose from.
Under Arizona’s school choice program, residents who donate to any of the 54 school tuition organizations receive a tax credit. Last year, 73,000 residents donated $50 million to fund these scholarship programs. All residents have the option to donate to the many non-religious scholarship organizations. This scholarship tax credit program allows approximately 28,000 students to receive a better education. According to Tim Keller, executive director of Institute for Justice’s Arizona chapter,
Private choice, not government action, controls Arizona’s tax credit program. The entire program is religiously neutral. Taxpayers and parents have no financial incentive to donate to either a religiously affiliated scholarship organization over a nonreligious scholarship organization or to select a religious over a nonreligious school.
The Supreme Court’s decision will have major implications for other school choice programs around the country. Many states have similar tax credit scholarship programs including Iowa, Georgia, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. With the fight for school choice heating up in Pennsylvania, the ruling has the potential to hurt countless parents and students.
In a Goldwater Institute report, they found:
a significant number of Arizona families with incomes below $30,000 are benefiting from school choice policies.
In fact, 90 percent of the school tuition organizations reward scholarships based on financial need. Additionally, Baylor University Economics Professor Charles North found that the scholarship tax credit program saves Arizona taxpayers somewhere from $99.8 to $241.5 million.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the ACLU claiming that the program was unconstitutional. If the Supreme Court upholds this decision, thousands of children would be forced to return to their local public schools. Dr. Charles North also finds that 11,697 students would have no choice but to return to their local public school without scholarship credit. However, the Center for Arizona Policy estimates that number to be much higher:
Since the committee found that approximately two-thirds of the scholarships are awarded to students from low-income families, it is extremely likely that more than one-fourth of the current students receiving scholarships would not be able to attend a private school without the scholarship, so the program results in savings to the State.
In an Institute for Justice video, the Dennard family whose five children receive an educational scholarship says:
We started to have a family and have children and when we did that their quality of education became a major issue. The public schools in south Phoenix are inadequate. Arizona's scholarship program gave our family the opportunity, gave us a choice, they gave us the opportunity to choose the school that we want in our neighborhood…please don’t cut this program out. It has benefitted my family, my children have a great education, they are going on to college now.
The Arizona school choice program has been a win-win. It saves taxpayers money while increasing parental satisfaction and student achievement. While the Arizona scholarship program is still limited, the Goldwater Institute states that:
scholars have demonstrated... that school choice had led to academic gains at the school level, both in Arizona and elsewhere.
Since parents have a true private choice, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Ohio’s school choice program in Zelman v. Simmon-Harris in 2002. Let’s hope that the recently sworn in Supreme Court justices also understand that Arizona’s scholarship program has the secular purpose of allowing children the freedom to escape their local failing public school.